× On West Bank, No One Rests Easy, No Matter What U.S. Says About Settlements
DOHA, Qatar — Whatever the U.S. might say, peace at last is no closer in the West Bank and Gaza.
It was the latest in a series of failed talks, and there were no signs of sentiment toward the Trump administration on either side from Palestinians or Israeli government officials. In fact, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pronounced the U.S. status as “neutral” on the map.
It appeared in a report late Wednesday that was published in Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper. That report has not been publicly released. The Trump administration initially denied it was accurate, but on Thursday, on a visit to the West Bank, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said he had read the report but found it inaccurate.
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 war, and the territories are the heart of the conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians. The Oslo Accords of 1993 came with a plan for final-status negotiations. But it has never been held, though the Palestinians see on paper a right of return for Palestinian refugees that could swamp Israel.
The Trump administration has created a divisive reputation, from condemning the “bad guys” — Iran, and militant groups such as Hamas — to trying to reach out to Iran. There have been some other changes to the way Washington conducts business in the region, including a decision to cease indirect contacts with Israel over the issue of Judea and Samaria.
That last action — and President Donald Trump’s follow-up statement, said Mahmoud Al-Halki, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization mission in Washington — made it clear that the U.S. was changing its policy. Trump had said only about “putting at risk” any chance for peace.
“I can say that,” Al-Halki said. “I read in the Israeli media that President Trump has said, quote, ‘Put yourself in Israel’s shoes.’ This is now a message from President Trump to all the Israelis, to Israelis, all the communities in the settlements, not to worry. The possibility of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is going to be higher than before.”
Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, said in October that no agreement would be reached if the Palestinians refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. In November, the U.S. government said it would put the future of the international offices that Israel established in eastern Jerusalem’s Old City on hold, saying they could not serve “any purpose other than serving as a provocation to the Palestinians.”
The official Israeli version, from Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, was that he saw the report as another example of Washington putting pressure on the Palestinians to accept a bad deal.
“If the Americans impose an idea that they have with Israel, they will never be able to achieve this agreement,” Hamdallah said after meeting with Friedman. “I believe the American administration wants to get it right. We don’t want to get it wrong. But if the ideas and proposals the American administration brings, this is not the correct way.”
But there are no illusions, no reasons to feel hopeful.
Israelis see settlements as an existential threat, damaging the country’s security. Many Israelis believe the current conflict is about refugees and land. Settlers and other hardliners tend to view the Palestinians as the problem, not the solution.
Palestinians feel they are being squeezed, as Israel expands its military, military powers and control over the Palestinians. But they believe Israel’s new approach is aimed at ensuring control for as long as possible, which is impossible unless the West Bank becomes fully under Israeli control.
“There is no room for the settlements in an agreement that we will have,” said Nasser Kassis, a Palestinian official who co-chaired the Israeli and Palestinian negotiations that fell apart three years ago.
He said settlements were linked to Israeli security concerns and had an impact on the lives of the Palestinians.
“Settlements are another form of control, and it can’t be separated out,” he said. “Settlements are a major reason for the conflict.”
Also, Israelis fear that the Palestinians will somehow find a way to end negotiations by using a country, whose administration would become the nuclear weapons supplier of the Middle East, as the payment processor for billions of dollars in compensation payments.